By Amity P. Buxton
Originally published on Advocate.com May 12 2009 12:00 AM ET
Stark and slick, Outrage makes a piercing, sobering indictment of the hypocrisy of closeted gay politicians who, in their straight persona, deny their fellow gays equality and justice by voting against gay rights ranging from hate-crime protections to same-sex marriage to adoptions by gay and lesbian parents. America is not well led, nor are its populations well served by politicians who seek power and forget the truth of who they are. The betrayal of their own integrity as gay persons in order to gain political power and the subsequent use of that power to cause harm to gay and lesbian citizens is enough to raise our adrenaline. Yet below the layers of the film's crisscrossing of personal and political events lies a side story of betrayal and pain that also needs to be addressed. I fear it may get lost amid the core message of the film.
I'm not referring to the individual snapshots of the private relationships and straight-faced denials of men like Idaho senator Larry Craig and Florida governor Charlie Crist, who engage in double talk when their same-sex activities are revealed. No, the side story that needs to be raised to a higher level of awareness is that of the straight wives who find themselves in the glass closets of politicians who rose in the ranks to take the helm of a state government or to represent their constituencies in the House of Representatives or the Senate by denying who they were. The wives' stories spotlight the costs paid by everyone in a family and community when a gay person feels obliged to hide who he or she is and pretend to be someone else in order to be accepted and gain power. More important, their story is a cautionary tale that reveals the far-reaching damage done by antigay attitudes and heterosexist expectations that still prevail in America.
We get glimpses in the film of the impact of closeting on the women in these men's lives. The few we see, like the wives of Senator Craig and Governor Crist, look stunned or disbelieving when their husbands are found in compromising situations. We see former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey's wife, frozen in place in her light blue suit beside him as he announces to a national TV audience, "I am a gay American." The three women are but a tiny fraction of the up to 2 million straight wives (and husbands) in the United States who were or are married to gay or lesbian partners. Altogether, they form an invisible minority, an untold chapter in the history of the gay movement.
As long as gay husbands stay carefully closeted and deny they are gay -- even if their after-hours gay-related activities or same-sex relationships are sighted -- their wives remain in the dark, especially if they are preoccupied with raising their children. Some may become suspicious, but typically continue to trust, having no reason to think their husbands wouldn't be the straight persons they present to them, their family, and the community. Some also fear what people would think or say if the men turned out to be gay, given prevalent stigmatization, stereotyping, and homophobia. Yes, many people, gay and straight alike, refuse to believe that "the wife didn't know." But based on the 25,000-plus spouses with whom I have been in contact since 1986, most have no clue, and if someone raises the possibility, many dismiss it. "After all, he married me and we have children."
As the politicians in the film come out of hiding, they feel liberated. Former governor McGreevey shares his happiness from being totally immersed in and empowered by the truth. Meanwhile, his former wife, Dina Matos McGreevey, in her short segment, speaks of the destruction of her and her daughter's lives that followed his truth-telling. Her words echo those spoken by the tens of thousands of straight spouses who seek help from the Straight Spouse Network after their husbands or wives come out or are found out. Once they find out the truth about their mates, their own identity, integrity, and belief system are shattered. Trust, hope, and a sense of reality disappear. At this point in the marital relationship, the tables turn. While the gay spouses, freed from guilt, shame, and fear, no longer fear "outing," their straight partners find themselves in the closet, blaming themselves, hurt and fearful as they deal with a lie they didn't know they were living, one that torpedoes their lives as they believed them to be. As their gay partners move on to a fulfilled, truthful life, they go through their own struggle to find whatever truth is buried in the leftover debris.
The straight spouses of the politicians in Outrage may be a side story in the film, but their experience is just as devastating on a personal level as the effect of the politicians' hypocrisy is on their fellow gay men and lesbians and their constituents -- and is just as related to the need for the acceptance and equality of gay people. The struggle of straight wives as they try to rebuild their destroyed self-concept, moral compass, and assumptions about gender, sex, marriage, and their future mirrors that of their partners. However, their confusion and pain is not caused by their own moral and sexual dilemma, but rather by their husband's hiding of identity and belief system in the face of the women's trust, the core of a marital relationship. At the same time, wives fear rejection by friends and family, fellow workers, community members, and fellow congregants in their churches, temples, or mosques -- as their husbands did. If they dare tell anyone, the typical responses either minimize their issues or question why they didn't know their mates were gay. Friends, family members, and professionals, including therapists and clergy, do not understand their unique issues. As a result, many go back into their spouses' closet to cope alone Some seek help and find the sole support system available to them in the Straight Spouse Network. Even so, they are isolated locally, coping with complex concerns by themselves. Isolated, they remain invisible, their voices unheard, while their husbands find not only support to heal but also venues in which to express their truth.
The experience of straight spouses, first hidden in their partners' closets and then overlooked in the excitement of their husbands' or wives' breaking out, affords us a personal window onto a rising conflict in our society that needs to be faced head on. Their trauma can be traced back to the prevailing mind-set about traditional marriage and antigay attitudes and stereotypes still found in many parts of our country. That is where we need to direct our outrage and take action to change the status quo. Anger at the hypocrisy in the film has to extend to the underlying negative attitudes about homosexuality and gay people in our society. These attitudes say, often louder than words, that being gay is a detriment to success -- thereby propelling hopeful gay politicians into the glass closet, where they do harm to fellow gay and lesbian Americans as well as betray their own integrity.
If we could take action to help more people in more communities to comprehend the reasons why many gay men marry unsuspecting women, they might grasp the deep connection between, on the one hand, the tragedies for everyone involved in these marriages and the hypocrisy of gay people in the public square, and on the other hand, their own role in causing these tragic stories by their encouragement of heterosexual marriage and discouragement of anyone's being gay or lesbian.
At a national level, the film's exposure of the harm done by closeted gay politicians is a rallying cry for outrage and activism against hypocrisy. As Barney Frank and Tammy Baldwin state and demonstrate by their own behavior, it's one's character and devotion to the common good that matter. May Outrage also be a wake-up call to increase awareness of the harm done to straight spouses and children in mixed-orientation marriages, attitudes that make it difficult for gay persons to be who they are. Most important, may it encourage gay men and lesbians to come out to their family, friends, and communities, a strategy that will lead to dissipating stereotypical assumptions about gay people and antigay attitudes. That is the social change needed for electing more honest leaders at the state and national level, benefiting us all.
In the end, increased acceptance and welcoming of gay men and lesbians as equal members of our communities will lead to stronger governmental institutions with leaders of integrity who can implement American ideals. Acceptance will also diminish societal pressures for gay men or lesbians to enter heterosexual marriages as the "right thing to do," only to later reveal their truth, which in the majority of cases triggers divorce -- an act that truly does weaken the institution of marriage.
Once accepted universally as individuals or government leaders, gay and lesbian persons can help America as a nation and all Americans to create a society based on truth, one that provides equality and justice for all.